To all politicians.  It’s about investing in a future and not trashing inspiration.

For at least as long ago as the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, novice tinkerers and expert engineers have engaged in innovative aviation projects, varying in size and scale. Canadian engineer Paul Moller, for example, has put a good part of the last 40 years and at least $100 million into developing the Moller Skycar 400, an affordable personal aircraft that takes off and lands vertically. Then there is Toronto-based Jay Godsall, who is developing an aeroplane-airship hybrid with a helium-filled chamber and solar cells designed to get into remote locations for disaster relief, exploration and research.

Aeronautical innovators in the developing world have fewer resources, but they have similar motivations, says Emeka Okafor, curator of Maker Faire Africa, an annual pan-African event that showcases ingenuity and innovation.

“In any society, there’s always a subset of individuals with an interest in tinkering, fabricating, mimicking, inventing,” says Okafor. “At the very fundamental level, what drives them is curiosity. On top of that, it’s problem solving, or addressing gaps they see in society.”

Social recognition and material rewards matter too. “I built the helicopter to showcase my talent, hoping that people would invest in me and give me an opportunity to build bigger and better things,” says Mwangi.

There is always a way…always.

‘Waste of talent’

And yet sometimes these innovators do get the rewards and as well as recognition. In 2007, 24-year-old physics student Nigerian Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi spent nearly a year building a 12-metre (39ft) long helicopter out of spare parts sourced from old cars, motorcycles, and even a crashed Boeing 747, using money he saved from repairing cell phones and computers.

“When I was a kid I loved helicopters,” says Abdullahi. “Whenever I saw one in the movies, I used to ask ‘how does this thing work?”

Years later when he told his college friends of his plan to build one, they laughed. “Only whites can build things like that,” they said. His response was to build a bright yellow helicopter with push-button ignition, an accelerator lever and a joystick for thrust and bearing. It was powered by a 133-horsepower engine salvaged from a Honda Civic.

Unlike the flying machines of many other amateur aviation innovators, Abdullahi’s contraption actually flew, although never above a height of 2.1 metres (7ft). But it did earn him international recognition, a TED Global Fellowship and a scholarship to study aircraft maintenance in the UK.

He now has a well paid job working for an electronics manufacturer in the UK, but dreams of starting his own aircraft company. He reflects that he got little support from the Nigerian government, and says the barriers faced by people like him result in a tremendous “waste of talent” in Africa.

These stories beg an important question: how can Africa better encourage and harness the talents of its aero-innovators?

Africa’s homemade aircraft builders.  I think these guys should talk to Lockheed Martin about cost overruns.

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